It won’t be long before the aroma of fresh herbs, local produce and pasture-raised meats are boiling out of the kitchen at Foothills Food Hub in Marion.
Through a new partnership with McDowell Technical Community College, the Food Hub is cooking up a series of culinary classes in partnership with the college that are anticipated to begin during the spring 2023 semester.
“The food service and hospitality industry is clamoring for employees who are cross-trained in all aspects of food preparation and service in McDowell County and throughout the region,” said MTCC President Dr. Brian S. Merritt. “But more importantly, the growth of farm-to-table programs in local restaurants has led to an even greater demand for kitchen staff who are versed in preparing high-quality meals with fresh, local ingredients. By training those employees, we will indirectly support local farmers and the local food economy.”
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Help wanted: a visionary instructor
Toward that end, the college is currently recruiting an instructor who will plan and teach classes to meet the needs of local food service and hospitality professionals.
“People and partnerships make our programs special,” said Merritt. “We are recruiting an individual(s) with the right experience who can partner with the Food Hub and local businesses to create a new Culinary & Hospitality Program that services McDowell County. This will begin as a flexible, part-time position that could grow into a full-time position quickly.”
Prospective instructors are invited to visit the MTCC Employment webpage to review the job description and apply, or contact Stacy Buff, associate vice president for workforce development, at 828-652-0663 or email@example.com.
What is the Foothills Food Hub?
Foothills Food Hub is an outgrowth of the McDowell Local Food Advisory Council (MLFAC) and has offices, warehouse and kitchen space leased from Nebo Crossing Church on Barnes Road in Marion.
“The Food Hub came into being because we wanted a brick-and-mortar solution to issues around food insecurity and supporting local and regional farmers,” said Heather Edwards, executive director of McDowell Local Food Advisory Council. “We work with the community around all kinds of food issues, from food insecurity to supporting local farmers.”
As the conversation around food grew, the MLFAC put significant energy into fundraising efforts in order to find workable solutions to space needs and buying food for residents with food insecurity. As a result of those efforts, they have received over $1 million in capital grants to build out the space they have leased, cost free, from Nebo Crossing Church. Construction began at the facilities in 2020, and construction was complete in November 2022.
Tim Pittman, who has been manager of the Food Hub for a year, is in charge of farmer food distribution, managing volunteers who distribute food to those in need, as well as data collection. The McDowell LFAC continues to seek future grants to ensure ongoing support and long-term sustainability.
In the height of the season, the Foothills Food Hub purchases from 25-plus farmers, which in turn supports multiple programs throughout the county. In addition, the Food Hub supports multiple pantries and other distributions of nonperishable goods, currently serving 400 to 450 households each week. Year-to-date, over $97,000 has been paid to local farmers, three-fourths of whom are from McDowell County, according to Pittman. Grants and state funding have provided the lion’s share of monies used for these purchases.
The new kitchen and culinary program
The new kitchen was not part of the first phase of capital projects when the primary portion of Food Hub’s space was initially occupied in 2021.
As of November, however, the kitchen is complete and will be the primary teaching space for the culinary classes offered by McDowell Tech faculty. Funding for the culinary project was provided through multiple grant sources including Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Dogwood Health Foundation, the Cannon Foundation and the Bridge Foundation, to name a few.
The McDowell LFAC is also a human services organization, led by Linda Hamrick, as part of the regional Healthy Opportunities Pilot program. Qualifying Medicaid clients currently receive healthy food boxes, with local produce and meat, and a variety of shelf-stable foods. Now that the kitchen is complete, the team will add diabetes prevention hands-on cooking classes led by Kim Freeman, an outreach nurse with Mission McDowell Hospital, and Mike Hanlon.
Culinary instruction from McDowell Tech will include not only meal preparation, but also ServSafe classes required of all restaurants in North Carolina (and many other states), and front-of-house operations like wait service.
“McDowell Tech has been an amazing partner since day one,” said Edwards.
“We are not just looking for someone with a list of credentials, however,” she added. “We want someone who is excited about local food, who understands farming and what it means to support farmers, who can adapt and be flexible, who can weave in requests by restaurant owners into the curriculum, and most of all, someone who can make it fun.”
Partnerships that sustain the program
More than likely, the new instructor will invite guests to assist in the program, including committed partners like Centro Unido Latino Americana (CULA) and West Marion Community Forum, who may share ideas for culture-specific cuisines.
“The Food Hub belongs to everyone in the community,” said Edwards. “It came into existence to support our community. Everyone is welcome here, including local food producers. If farmers want to sell to us, whether they have produce, meat or eggs, they just need to reach out to us through our website or one of our email addresses.”
Eggs are currently a hot commodity, and they need lots of eggs. Most meats need to be USDA-processed, and Edwards or Pittman can talk to meat-producers about these requirements when appropriate. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Volunteers who want to help with food distribution, food-box creation and twice-weekly food-box delivery, or partner in other ways with the Food Hub, are also welcome to reach out to Edwards or Pittman.
“We look forward to the launch of our Culinary & Hospitality program with Foothills Food Hub,” said Merritt. “Collaboration and partnerships are the key to changing the trajectory of employment in the hospitality and food service industry, as well as growing the local food economy and restaurant culture through an increased presence of farm-to-table operations. By providing restaurant owners with trained employees, their long-term health and market viability will become more sustainable, which is a benefit to all of us. The day we smell the aroma of fresh food, lovingly prepared, rolling out of that kitchen will be a great day.”